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Behavioral Health in the News

The New York School-Based Health Foundation is committed to addressing the growing behavioral health needs of our schoolchildren. With generous grant funding, we are launching our DBT Program and entering the second year of our Behavioral Health Program to expand access to mental health care for children and young people. Click the links above to learn more about these programs, and how you can participate!

"Thousands of NYC students lost parents to COVID. Many aren’t getting the help they need."

Original article written by Liz Donovan and Fazil Khan for Chalkbeat NYC

More than 8,700 children in New York City who have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March 2020, nearly double the national rate.

These losses, like the coronavirus itself, have disproportionately struck families of color and immigrants. Black, Hispanic and Asian children in the city were roughly three times more likely to lose a caregiver in the home to COVID compared to white children, according to an analysis done in May by the COVID Collaborative, a public health effort to address the pandemic.

THE CITY, Columbia Journalism Investigations, Type Investigations and City Limits spent a year documenting the NYC Department of Education’s response to COVID-bereaved children in public schools. They discovered that decades of underfunding mental health care left schools unprepared to handle the spike in needs during the pandemic. Amid that crisis, grieving students were largely overlooked and often didn’t get the help they needed.

A parent’s death is a monumental event in a child’s life. Research shows that most children can cope if they have support from their family and community. But for some children, losing a caregiver will have long-term consequences. They may struggle to stay in school, or face depression and anxiety as adults.

Experts say that schools can help mitigate such harms by providing immediate care and access to clinical assistance. Noting that schools are a “nearly universal touchpoint for school-aged children,” a December 2021 report from the COVID Collaborative recommends that schools be part of a “coordinated strategy” to identify and support COVID-grieving students.

New York City schools have yet to do that. In a recent interview with THE CITY and its partners, former mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged that the Department of Education didn’t try to distinguish these students’ mental health needs from those of their peers at first.

“The situation was so profoundly troubling across the board,” de Blasio said. “The idea was that the need was so great: set up a system for everyone, and then individualize the solutions.”

But it’s not clear that an individualized response ever materialized. In interviews and survey responses, more than a dozen public school teachers, social workers and administrators described inadequate staffing for mental health support, limited training and a lack of clear guidance from the department. Many said the problems persist even now, nearly three years later.

The dearth of care for grieving students partly stems from an overall shortage of mental health support in New York City schools. Before the pandemic, the DOE employed only one full-time social worker for every 648 students attending public schools, a ratio more than twice as high as what is recommended by the National Association of Social Workers.

In April 2021, a full year into the pandemic, de Blasio announced measures to tackle this shortfall. His administration budgeted approximately $300 million in COVID-relief federal funding over four years for school-based mental health services that could help all pandemic-impacted children. The DOE promised to hire 500 additional social workers and conduct social-emotional screenings of students.

Despite hiring hundreds of social workers in the fall of 2021, however, the ratio is still significantly higher than recommended. The number of bilingual-licensed social workers employed by the DOE has actually declined slightly during the pandemic even as the number of English language learners increased.

Recent reports reinforce these findings. An August 2022 audit by the New York state comptroller’s office found DOE officials haven’t hired enough mental health professionals or provided adequate training to school staff to address New York City students’ mental health issues.

For some families the authors interviewed, children fell through the cracks due to the lack of screening to identify bereaved children. These families said they were reluctant to confide in school staff and received little encouragement to do so.

More than 6,500 DOE staff members participated in pandemic-related stress and grief trainings between March 2020 and June 2022, according to the department. The DOE also has offered professional development seminars for school staff on how to support students coping with grief and loss, a spokesperson said. The agency estimates that approximately 75,000 staff and community members participated in those sessions from 2021-2022. (It declined to specify how many of those were school staff.)

Yet trainings like these are optional — a problem highlighted in the comptroller’s report, which recommended mandatory mental health training for all school staff members who interact with students daily.

Even David Schonfeld’s training initiative has failed to reach most staff, a disappointing coda to a bold plan. The organizers reported that just over 1,000 city schools underwent the training between April 2020 and June 2021, but only 20% of participating schools managed to train five or more employees.

Many school staff members say their struggles to help COVID-grieving students were compounded by the education department’s failure to supply clear guidelines. No one we spoke with expected to see such standards handed down during the pandemic’s early days. But as it dragged on, the continued lack of guidance felt more surprising, they said.

DOE confirmed that it has avoided what it calls a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Instead, it noted that crisis teams, composed of school social workers, counselors and administrators, often are a “first line of defense” for grieving students.

In March 2021, de Blasio appointed Meisha Porter — a former Bronx teacher, principal and administrator — as education chancellor. In an interview, Porter said she had seen how COVID losses overwhelmed schools in her district and felt strongly about incorporating mental health support into DOE’s reopening plan.

Under Porter’s guidance, the department rolled out a plan to hire the 500 social workers, targeting schools hardest-hit by the pandemic.

By December 2021, eight months into the plan, around a third of public schools in neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID still did not have a full-time social worker, according to our analysis of DOE data.

Others had social workers but struggled to meet the needs of non-English speaking families. Studies show counseling is twice as effective if it’s in the language of the person seeking it.

Since Eric Adams took over as mayor in January 2022 and appointed David Banks as education chancellor, the two have said little about how the new administration will address the city’s COVID-grieving schoolchildren.

In September, Adams and Banks announced that 110 social workers would be reassigned from the early childhood division to the city’s public schools, a DOE spokesperson said. It is unclear what, if any, impact the move will have on schools in the neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19.

To read the full article, CLICK HERE.


"Mayor Eric Adams promises mental telehealth support for all NYC high school students"

Original article written by Alex Zimmerman for Chalkbeat NYC

All New York City high school students will have access to mental health support through telehealth programs, Mayor Eric Adams announced in January, his first major effort to address growing concerns about student wellbeing.

“This year we’re rolling out the biggest student mental health program in the country,” Adams said during his annual State of the City speech at the Queens Theatre. “We will provide our high school students with everything from telehealth care to community-based counseling depending on their individual needs.”

Many students experienced trauma during the pandemic, including the loss of loved ones and frayed social bonds during long periods of isolation. Mental health professionals have seen increases in anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and behavior challenges, trends that have raised alarms.

School districts across the country are increasingly leaning on telehealth, which may help ease some barriers to mental health care and could make students or families more likely to attend sessions. Still, telehealth requires access to devices, internet, and private space, which may be difficult to guarantee depending on whether students will be expected to access services from home.

City officials did not immediately provide details about how the program will work, but some experts said they were cautiously optimistic about the announcement.

“It raises lots of procedural questions which maybe they will fill in later, but it’s hard for me not to focus on those right away,” said Kevin Dahill-Fuchel, the executive director of Counseling in Schools, an organization that partners with about 70 schools across the city to provide mental health services.

The city is still exploring how to deliver telehealth services, a spokesperson for the city’s health department wrote in an email, offering no further comment about how the program will work.

The mayor’s mental health push included a few other components as well, including “daily breathing and mindfulness exercises.”

Jelena Obradović, a researcher at Stanford University who has studied breathing exercises, said those techniques can help students regulate their physiology, but little research has been conducted on whether those exercises improve learning outcomes.

“Teachers and students need effective strategies for responding to stressful lived experiences,” Obradović wrote in an email. “Deep breathing exercises could be incorporated in schools alongside a full [social emotional learning] curriculum, but shouldn’t be used as a replacement for it.”

To read the full article, CLICK HERE.


"Deep breaths: NYC to roll out breathing exercises for all students, Banks says"

Original article written by Alex Zimmerman for Chalkbeat NYC

As schools across the city grapple with the mental health fallout of the pandemic, Chancellor David Banks indicated this week that the education department is in the process of introducing breathing exercises for all students.

“We are looking at rolling out two to three minutes of breathing technique[s] for every student in New York City schools as we go into next school year,” Banks said during a panel discussion this week hosted by Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group.

Education officials did not respond to questions about how the breathing program would be implemented, if it would involve using a specific curriculum, and how much the effort will cost. Banks noted that he’s hoping to build on techniques that are already in place at some schools and suggested the breathing lessons will begin “mid year.”

Addressing student mental health is a growing concern, as many students experienced trauma during the pandemic including the loss of loved ones. Social bonds frayed during long periods of remote instruction and students were more disconnected from their peers and teachers. Changes in behavior have been clear since students returned to school buildings full time, some educators said, including age-appropriate behaviors, struggling to make it to school at all, or even getting high during the school day to cope with anxiety.

Teachers offered mixed reactions to Banks’ suggestion that the city will institute breathing exercises across the school system.

Liz Haela, a middle school teacher at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx who attended the panel discussion, said she didn’t have a problem with breathing exercises, but wanted to hear more about how the city plans to address students’ emotional needs, especially those who come from low-income families or are homeless.

Banks has not yet offered a detailed set of proposals for tackling student wellbeing and has instead largely focused on efforts to improve early literacy instruction and expanding students’ exposure to career paths before they graduate. And some of the education department’s previous efforts to measure and address student mental health have earned mixed reviews from educators, including a required social-emotional screener that officials later made optional.

Still, city officials have taken some steps in recent years to address student mental health, guaranteeing every school access to a social worker or on-site mental health clinic, and expanding the number of schools that partner with nonprofits to provide a range of social services. (A substantial chunk of those programs are funded with one-time federal relief dollars, raising questions about their long-term sustainability.)

To read the full article, CLICK HERE.


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